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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Hand Count Sparks Legal War

Hearing on Bush Suit Is Delayed as Verbal Skirmishing Goes On

Election: Federal judge puts off ruling on Florida review until Monday. Baker sees need for some finality. Christopher says it's more important to get it right.

November 12, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK and MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — George W. Bush filed a lawsuit Saturday seeking to block a hand recount of Florida ballots and preserve his slim margin in the all-or-nothing state, turning the deadlocked presidential election into a federal court battle.

But a judge refused to hear the case right away and, under heavy security and a nation's anxious watch, election workers in Palm Beach County began hand tabulating thousands of disputed ballots.

With the White House hanging in the balance, the two presidential campaigns continued their verbal skirmishing, their contest still stubbornly undecided four days after the final votes were cast.

"At some point . . . Florida's voters, and indeed all Americans, are entitled to some finality in the election process," said James A. Baker III, Bush's Florida point man, in announcing the lawsuit.

Warren Christopher, Gore's election overseer, countered, "The importance of getting it right outweighs the importance of rushing to judgment."

Indeed, he noted, Gov. Bush had signed a 1997 law in Texas that made hand-counting preferable to a mechanical recount in election disputes. "This procedure is authorized under Florida law, under Texas law and under the law of many other jurisdictions," Christopher said.

Some of Bush's fellow Republicans chimed in as well, questioning the governor's decision to take the election dispute to court.

"The Bush people win if they're fighting against a new election," said Jim Pinkerton, a GOP strategist and former White House aide to Bush's father. "But they lose if they're fighting against a recount.

"The difference is people have kind of an intuitive sense that no election is perfect and you do the best you can to count and get it right. A new election is too much medicine," Pinkerton said. "But no one can argue against a fair recount of the election you already had." The escalating rhetoric between the two campaigns came as one Florida official warned of an "election meltdown," and opinion polls showed the public siding with Gore's position as the presidency teeters between him and Bush.

In two surveys issued Saturday, a majority of Americans opposed a Gore concession before all the Florida votes are counted. The process will take at least several more days, as absentee ballots have until Friday to trickle in from overseas.

The hand counting of roughly 4,000 ballots in Palm Beach County got underway Saturday afternoon as a cordon of sheriff's deputies stood guard. Elsewhere, Volusia County officials spent the day scrutinizing one-by-one hundreds of write-in ballots to determine if they should count. At the end of the day, Gore had gotten five additional votes and Bush had picked up one.

A more thorough hand tabulation of about 185,000 ballots is expected to begin there today.

The identity of the nation's 43rd president will most likely hinge on Florida and its trove of 25 electoral votes. Democrat Gore has 262 electoral votes, Republican Bush 246. It takes 270 to win the White House.

Florida Results Not Yet Certified

Before Saturday's hand counting began, Florida state officials said their tally showed Bush leading by 960 votes, with 66 of the state's 67 counties reporting. But results in Palm Beach County--a Democratic stronghold--have not been certified, pending a court hearing on Tuesday.

An unofficial tally of all 67 counties by Associated Press gave Bush a statewide lead of 327 votes over Gore.

Bob Crawford, one of three members of the state board that certifies Florida's election results, added to the confusion Saturday when he suggested Palm Beach County's ballots might not be counted at all when the state certifies its election results. Under Florida law, he said, if any county canvassing board misses Tuesday's deadline to certify results the state board "shall ignore that county."

"The counties need to be aware of that," Crawford said. "If this whole state gets bogged down, different counties won't have a chance for people who voted to be counted."

Crawford, the state agriculture commissioner, is a Democrat but endorsed Bush for president and his Republican brother, Jeb Bush, for Florida governor.

Crawford's remarks may have been an attempt to buttress George W. Bush's claims that widespread hand-counting could undermine the results.

"I think we're about to have a meltdown in Florida's election because of the pressure that's on," Crawford said.

The latest legal salvo came from the Bush camp early Saturday morning, when attorneys filed suit in Miami federal court on behalf of Bush, running mate Dick Cheney and seven Florida residents who voted for the GOP ticket. The action sought to block hand recounts that Democrats requested in Palm Beach, Volusia, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Broward County is to begin partial hand counting this week. A request by the Gore camp for a hand count in Miami-Dade is pending before local officials.

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